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They promise to help families of fallen officers. But they’re mostly paying telemarketers.

A union-backed police charity spends just a sliver of their money on those they purport to serve.
A donation page on the Law Enforcement Officers Relief Fund website explains the benefits of giving to the organization. [Center for Public Integrity  ]
A donation page on the Law Enforcement Officers Relief Fund website explains the benefits of giving to the organization. [Center for Public Integrity ]
Published Dec. 27, 2019
Updated Dec. 27, 2019

Sarah Kleiner and Chris Zubak-Skees reported this story for The Center for Public Integrity

SARASOTA, Florida — A uniformed police officer rests his hand on a casket and bows his head in an image on the homepage of the Law Enforcement Officers Relief Fund.

Next to the picture there’s a button that invites you to “Donate Today” and help families of fallen or injured officers.

The website asks the visitor to consider that it takes weeks for families of officers who have been killed “to receive the benefits they duly deserve while funeral costs, household expenses and other bills accumulate."

From the Law Enforcement Officers Relief Fund website. [Center for Public Integrity ]

But just a sliver of donations given to the Law Enforcement Officers Relief Fund helps those families, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of the group’s tax returns. Most of the money the nonprofit charity raises winds up with telemarketers paid to solicit donors.

The fund is one of several organizations related to the International Union of Police Associations, AFL-CIO, itself a nonprofit based in Sarasota that represents local chapters of police unions across the country. IUPA is one of about 70 affiliates of the national AFL-CIO and touts itself as “the only union for law enforcement officers.”

From roughly 2011 to March 2018, the union and the relief fund spent about $106.3 million, according to annual tax returns filed with the IRS. About $82.3 million of that amount — 77 percent — paid for fundraising services.

An associated political action committee, Law Enforcement for a Safer America, raised $4.5 million from donors across the country from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019. About $4 million of that paid for fundraising and related expenses. Little went to political action or advocacy — the core purposes of a PAC.

Up until recently, the political action committee shared an office in Sarasota with the union and the relief fund, and its founding treasurer was Michael Crivello, vice president of the union.

The police union and relief fund have contracted with Courtesy Call, Donor Relations and a handful of other companies owned by Las Vegas telemarketer Richard Zeitlin. One of their many other fundraisers is New Jersey-based Outreach Calling, which has ties to beleaguered telemarketer Mark Gelvan.

Both telemarketers have been the subject of extensive Center for Public Integrity investigations. The men have also caught the attention of lawmakers and regulators.

The Federal Trade Commission was investigating whether Zeitlin’s Courtesy Call and Donor Relations companies were “engaging in unfair or deceptive acts or practices,” but the agency dropped the matter in the fall of 2018, citing an ongoing grand jury investigation in Florida involving the two companies. In 2004, state officials in New York banned Gelvan from fundraising in the state, in part because his solicitors impersonated police officers when they asked for donations.

These telemarketers charge some of the highest rates for fundraising on behalf of clients, Public Integrity has reported. The companies keep most of the money they raise in the name of police officers, firefighters, injured veterans, children with leukemia, women with breast cancer and people with autism.

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

Why does the International Union of Police Associations contract with these telemarketers? Why does its charitable arm spend such a small percentage of donors’ money on charity?

The International Union of Police Associations is headquartered in Sarasota. [SARAH KLEINER | Center for Public Integrity]
A reporter got no response to a message left for the union president at the Florida headquarters. [SARAH KLEINER | Center for Public Integrity]

In June, a Public Integrity reporter visited the union’s headquarters to ask Sam Cabral, the organization’s longtime president. Cabral wasn’t at the union’s 10,000-square-foot office overlooking downtown Sarasota from atop the PNC Bank building, and he did not respond to a message left for him.

The reporter did reach Cabral on Nov. 1, when he and other top International Union of Police Associations executives were hosting a conference at The Madison Washington DC. The reporter approached Cabral in a meeting room, but he declined to comment and escorted her out into the hallway. His employees then called security, who ushered the reporter out of the hotel. The organization’s attorney, Holly E. Oliva-Van Horsten, did not respond to a follow-up email.

“The Law Enforcement Officers Relief Fund is there immediately to support our public safety officers in their greatest time of need,” Cabral wrote in a recent fundraising document.

Charity watchdogs have much to say about Cabral’s organization. For example, the International Union of Police Associations has a “D-minus” rating from the Better Business Bureau for failing to respond to 15 complaints against it. The Tampa Bay Times in 2014 put the union on its list of organizations that spend little on the causes they champion.

The Better Business Bureau also warns donors about one of the union’s affiliated organizations. It alleges the National Police and Trooper Association uses aggressive, “high-pressure tactics” to solicit funds and repeatedly calls people who have asked to be removed from call lists.

“I’m so infuriated by the utter lack of enforcement,” said Matt Weidner, a Florida lawyer who has been pushing state officials to crack down on nonprofits that spend most of the money they raise on fundraising. “The big picture is Florida has this great statute, but zero enforcement, so it’s just words, words, words.”

It is legal in the U.S. for charities and political committees to spend almost everything they raise on fundraising. Like many other states, Florida’s law prohibits charities from misleading donors or misrepresenting themselves.

The Florida attorney general’s office has received one “Do Not Call List” complaint this year against the union, said spokesman Whitney Ray. The office forwarded the complaint to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which regulates charities.

A spokesman for that agency did not respond to a request for comment.

“If anyone believes a Florida-based charity or any other organization or individual has violated the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, they should contact our office immediately,” Ray said.

A SLIVER FOR FAMILIES

The International Union of Police Associations and its related organizations go by more than a dozen different names, including the Police Officers Support Association and the National Emergency Responders Coalition. But the groups file financial disclosures with federal regulators under only a handful of names.

Up until the latest tax year — when the groups appear to have changed how they categorize certain expenditures — the pattern was largely the same from year to year: A small number of families received a couple thousand dollars apiece; top employees of the union received more than $100,000 apiece; and tens of millions went to telemarketers.

For example, in the tax year that ended March 2018, the Law Enforcement Officers Relief Fund gave 11 families an average of $6,545 apiece. That is equivalent to 2.7 percent of the $2.7 million the organization raised from donors that year, according to its federal tax return.

Most of the money raised went to telemarketing — 87 percent — and other expenses.

That same tax year, the International Union of Police Associations gave 10 students pursuing advanced degrees in law enforcement an average of $2,500 apiece.

About $1.9 million went toward the salaries of union officials, including $199,700 for Cabral, the president. Three other IUPA executives earned more than $100,000 apiece during fiscal 2017-2018.

The union raised $3.3 million from membership dues and spent nearly the same amount providing services to those members — a pattern typical in the last several years. But the bulk of its revenue — $16.2 million — came from donors across the country, which it spent about $14.8 million to raise.

In the tax year that ended in March 2019, the union shifted gears. It began using some of the newest companies owned by Zeitlin, the Las Vegas telemarketer. Those companies were paid for “tech support” and “data security compliance.”

The union does not count these expenditures as fundraising expenses. But two people who run unrelated political action committees that also contract with Zeitlin’s technology and data companies have said Zeitlin is still fundraising for them. Zeitlin’s attorney previously told Public Integrity his companies are not fundraising for the PACs.

Still, the International Union of Police Associations ranks among the top unions and tax-exempt organizations for spending on professional fundraisers in data collected by the Internal Revenue Service.

The AFL-CIO, with which IUPA is affiliated, did not respond to requests for comment left in voicemails, emails and a message left in person.

Unlike many other dues-funded unions, police groups — which come in a variety of types, including labor organizations and associations — often turn to high-priced professional fundraisers to raise on their behalf, according to a Public Integrity analysis of IRS data.

During 2017, more than 100 tax-exempt groups claiming to represent police officers, sheriff's deputies and state troopers reported spending more than $100,000 each on professional fundraisers, according to IRS data from federal tax returns. That adds up to a collective $65 million.

This has sometimes caused police officials to — in an odd twist — warn the public about groups that say they’re raising money for police.

“The [Florida Highway Patrol] Command Officers Association would like to thank you for your interest in our organization,” one group warns on its website. “We would also like to make you aware that several other organizations may be soliciting your home for donations. Do not be confused about the source of these solicitations.” It names four police groups, including IUPA, as organizations that may be “claiming to represent State Troopers.”

FEWER MEMBERS

At one point, the International Union of Police Associations seemed well-positioned to be a powerful voice among police unions.

An upbeat 1979 column in The San Francisco Policeman — the newsletter of the city’s police association — heralded the newly minted IUPA’s “drive to unionize (the) nation’s 400,000 police officers.” IUPA quickly signed up 51,000 members, affiliated with police forces in major cities and successfully lobbied for passage of a landmark labor law.

But by 1981, IUPA’s relationship with the San Francisco Police Officers Association had soured, leading to a petition to withdraw. In a letter responding to the dispute, IUPA’s secretary-treasurer asked for contributions to the national union’s PAC to give it “a better position to obtain effective national legislation.”

Duane Collins, an SFPOA board member shot back that they already paid dues.

“I thought this money was to give policemen a voice at the national level. Apparently it is not. Instead, it goes for salaries and expenses, and very little goes for our unified voice in Washington,” he wrote.

The petition passed in a membership vote the following year.

Dozens of other police locals have at one point affiliated with IUPA, only to later disaffiliate, although by 1997, the union claimed 80,000 members.

Sam Cabral from the International Union of Police Officers wrote to a U.S. senator in support of the Protect and Serve Act of 2018, making it a hate crime to target law enforcement officials. [Center for Public Integrity ]

In recent letters to members of Congress supporting certain bills, Cabral said IUPA now represents more than 100,000 “rank and file law enforcement officers,” or roughly one out of every eight in the U.S. The same membership figure was repeated in the union’s re-election endorsement of President Donald Trump in September.

But the union’s 2018 tax return said it represents about 23,200 union members, down from 50,400 in 2006.

IUPA hasn’t always relied so heavily on telemarketers to raise funds. The organization once ran a phone room in Lakeland, about 80 miles northeast of Sarasota.

When Caitlan Ackloo was a high school student in 2004, she responded to a bright orange job ad on a road sign that didn’t identify the employer but promised a high hourly wage.

Ackloo, who is now 30 and works in New York City, was hired. She was assigned to work as a telemarketer in the union’s phone room, which she described as a high-pressure environment with lots of turnover. She worked there for about a year.

Ackloo and others raised $6 million for the union that year; the group brought in another $3 million in membership dues. About $5.5 million of the $8.8 million in the group’s expenses that year was spent on fundraising.

“I had zero idea how the money was used,” Ackloo said.

Eventually, several years after Ackloo quit her job, the employees of the union’s phone room attempted to unionize themselves, according to documents alleging unfair labor practices filed with the National Labor Relations Board, which Public Integrity obtained through a Freedom of Information request. But before the process was complete, IUPA closed its phone room and laid off all 75 employees.

Within months, the union began contracting with three new telemarketing companies, according to tax returns. By 2017, that number had grown to at least 10 telemarketers.

Ever since, the group — which plans to move its headquarters into a $2.6 million office building that one of its affiliates purchased in Sarasota last year — continues to raise funds.

In October, it held its annual golf tournament in Venice. The union did not allow Public Integrity to photograph the event, citing the need to protect the identities of “active-duty law enforcement officers.” (A publicly available event brochure features photographs of dozens of 2018 golf tournament attendees.)

In September 2020, the union plans to host its 22nd “international convention” at the Casa Marina, a Waldorf Astoria resort in Key West, with 1,100 feet of private beach.

Help the Center for Public Integrity investigate telemarketers who claim they’re raising money for charitable causes. Did a telemarketer contact you about fundraising on behalf of a charity or political action committee? Let us know by texting us or leaving a voicemail at (202) 656-7178. You can also reach reporter Sarah Kleiner at sarahkpublicintegrity@gmail.com.

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